First published in Galaxy, February 1953
You can read the story here.
Throughout its history, a lot of science fiction has portrayed aliens, non-Earth life forms, as emotionless, cruel, blood-thirsty monsters. The aliens are hell-bent on destroying Earth, sometimes it seems for no reason at all. I suppose this stems from our natural tendency toward xenophobia, the fear of that which is different.
But why should any other life from anywhere else in the universe be all that much different from us emotionally? Maybe empathy, morality, and ethics are intrinsic to life and all beings share the emotions of joy, sadness, anger, and loneliness. Profound loneliness...
A man is searching for a woman on a beach. He believes she is thinking of killing herself, and he desperately wants to prevent it. Just as it seems he has given up hope, he spots her. She is in the water, and when she notices him there, she plunges into the sea and sinks.
He runs into the waves and saves her, which makes the woman angry. She pleads with him to just leave her alone. And she realizes that he knows who she is, but doesn't really know who she is. He knows her from the newspaper stories, but she tells him the real story as they are sitting in the dark on the beach.
The story within the story: The woman was seventeen years old, walking in Central Park, New York, and feeling disconnected from the world. Theodore Sturgeon has some beautiful passages here:
For a moment she felt separated from the life she lived, in which there was no fragrance, no silence, in which nothing ever quite fit nor was quite filled. In that moment the ordered disapproval of the buildings around the pallid park could not reach her; for two, three clean breaths it no longer mattered that the whole wide world really belonged to images projected on a screen; to gently groomed goddesses in these steel-and-glass towers; that it belonged, in short, always, always to someone else.At this moment, feeling like this, the woman looks up and sees a golden flying saucer. It was only about six inches in diameter and was floating about eighteen inches above her head. Suddenly, the saucer dropped against her forehead and held there. For a second or two the saucer held her, seeming to lift her slightly, and then the woman collapsed to the ground. The saucer dropped beside her, dull, metallic, and dead.
This activity certainly attracted the attention of the people around her, including the police, and in short order, the FBI. When the woman sat up, she said, "The saucer talked to me," and the FBI agent on the scene to her to shut up, that she'd have plenty of chance to talk later.
Government officials pried and pried, but the woman wouldn't tell them what the saucer said to her. She would only say, "It was talking to me, and it's just nobody else's business." The saucer itself was no help, having turned from a golden color to a dull gray. The woman did tell her interrogators that that was because it was empty now.
The woman served a little bit of jail time, having been found in contempt of court for refusing to reveal what the saucer said, and after getting out, she isolated herself from the unwanted attention and celebrity she received as a result of what happened to her. Eventually she moved to the shore and cleaned offices and stores at night. She began writing notes, stuffing them in bottles, and throwing them out to sea. She said that if the right person found one, it would give them the only thing in the world that would help. However, she realized that the time had come when it was no use anymore - she says, "You can go on trying to help someone who maybe exists; but soon you can't pretend there's such a person anymore."
Back in the present timeline of the story, the woman tells the man who saved her that it wouldn't have mattered if she had told them what the saucer said - they wouldn't have believed her. They wanted a new weapon, super-science from a super-race. But, she says, "Don't they ever imagine a super-race has super-feelings, too - super-laughter, maybe, or super-hunger?"
She wonders if the man wants to know what the saucer said. He says that he will tell her - after all, he found one of her bottles, in which she always inserted the saucer's message:
There is in certain living souls a quality of loneliness unspeakable, so great it must be shared as company is shared by lesser beings. Such a loneliness is mine; so know by this that in immensity there is one lonelier than you.As it turns out, the saucer was just a message in a bottle, sent across the ocean of space to find someone who needed it. The woman was about to kill herself because she had had no feedback, no indication, that her own messages were of any help to anyone. She tells the man, "No one wants me? Fine. But don't tell me no one, anywhere, wants my help. I can't stand that."
The man tells her that he found one of her bottle two years before, and he's been looking for her ever since. He has a club foot, difficulty expressing himself, and an ugly nose. He can't get hired in places where people have to look at him, and he's never been with a woman. He tells her that she is beautiful.
The story ends with the thought that even to loneliness there is an end, for those who are lonely enough, long enough.
What it all means
I really like this story - it resonates with me. I suffer from depression, and have often felt disconnected from the world, and yes, very lonely. I fully realize that my life isn't so bad that I need to feel this way; I am not alone and I do not face anywhere near the level of difficulties that many people do. But that's the nightmare of depression - it is irrational and feels uncontrollable. Luckily, with the help of a great therapist, I've been able to learn to deal with it. (I could see myself including more personal reactions and connections to the stories I post about in the future, but that's enough about that for now.)
The woman in the story, never named, has had a tough life, as many little details throughout the story reveal. These include how she feels the world always belongs to someone else (quote above), as well as these lines: "No one had ever looked at her and made a respectful gesture before, not once, not ever;" "'attractive' is as dowdy as any woman is allowed to get if she is a victim in the news;" "She had a bedroom to herself then for the first time in her life;" "Pretty soon it was just like Mom's or school or anyplace, and she used to sit with her mouth closed and let them yell;" "The flower pot she made in second grade that Mom threw down the fire escape;" "She met a man who asked her for a date. The first time." Sturgeon does a great job of dropping these things into the story naturally, painting a picture of a truly lonely and depressed woman. Haven't many of us felt this same way? Haven't we all wished for someone to reach out and tell us that we matter?
A couple more things about this story:
1. Sturgeon was probably pointing out, in 1953, that it's silly to think of aliens, if they exist, as being emotionless killers. Emotions are big, and the greatest intelligence in the universe may have the greatest capacity for emotions.
2. Space is huge and lonely. Imagine leaving Earth and heading out into that blackness. Despite billions of stars to head toward, the amount of space is even greater. Perhaps our own lives are like that on a smaller scale. It is easy to feel alone.
Despite that, we can make connections, and there are people out there. It might just take a while to find them.
You can watch a version of this story from a 1986 episode of The Twilight Zone. Start at 27:19 for A Saucer of Loneliness.